Crimson & Cloven:1

An interdimensional freelance hero of dubious repute finds himself tangled in a turf war between gangsters and demons.

“Face facts, dude, she totally wanted me so much more than you.”

My attempt at enjoying my meal failed long before Parker managed to close out another one of his self-gratifying tales of derring-do. It took considerable effort to eat the last of my pancakes. My sullen glare fell short in cracking his ostentatious sense of self-worth. He glanced down at my empty, syrup-stained plate and clucked with disapproval.

“You know, layin’ off the carbs might do you some good in the sweet lovin’ department. You’re getting a little…” His forehead tightened as a rare burst of concentration weaved through his mind. A smile spread across his face. Paunchy. That’s a good description. You’re getting a little paunchy.”

“Can you even spell paunchy?” I snapped; no small feat, considering at the time I had a mouthful of masticated flapjacks.

His smile dazzled. It was one of the maddening things about Parker Shaw. He managed to somehow surpass physical perfection. Every time he walked through a room, he stole gazes. His smiles elicited schoolgirlish giggles. When he winked, heartbeats skipped. Most of this was fine by me; I prefer eyes on everything but me. But the fact that he was aware of how goddamn beautiful he was made things brutal for those around him.

“I’m just saying that pancakes are no man’s friend. Doughnuts, too, for that matter.” He regarded me with a studious glare. “They say that junk food is as bad for you as Russian roulette.”

“Do me a favor then: I’ll eat, you play, and we’ll see who keels over first, ‘kay?” I threw back a glass of milk. Parker kept staring at me. “What now?”

“Is that skim milk?”

“Oh for the love of everything holy,” I gasped. “I’m not going to debate my eating habits with you. We are on a job, and that’s where our focus should stay.”

Parker sighed and rolled his eyes. “I was just trying to help. No need to get bitter.”

“I’m not bitter!”

“If you say so, tubby.” He breathed a theatrical gasp and clapped a hand over his mouth.

I aimed a sticky fork at him. “Listen here, pretty-boy, I can cut you out of this job. I’m doing all of the heavy lifting.”

“That’s appropriate, you being the heavy one and all.”

“I’ll show you appropriate, nancy-boy…–”

The door to the diner swung open, accompanied by the tinkling of chimes. A massive figure entered, ducking below the doorframe. With broad shoulders and thick arms, the man might have been carved from a mountain. From the scowl on his face, it likely would have been a verygrumpy mountain.

The man locked eyes with me and offered an imperceptible nod.

A waitress approached him, barely coming to his waist. She gave him an anxious smile. “Sit wherever you like, hon.”

“Thanks,” the man replied, and he stalked toward our table.

Parker looked upon the newcomer with overt awe. For once, something struck him silent. I failed to hide my smile; victory is far too delicious to conceal one’s delight. The man glared down at Parker with narrow, predatory eyes.

“Push over.” His voice sounded like boulders rolling down a steep hill.

Parker moved.

“Well, Leon, always nice to see you,” I said cheerfully. “Didn’t expect the boss would send someone as high-up as you to help in this case. I hope his confidence in me isn’t fading.”

Leon smirked; it looked odd, as if his facial muscles weren’t used to flexing in such a direction. “I’m here because his confidence in you is exactly the same, and he wants to be sure you don’t screw this up.”

“Ah.” I countered.

“So where is this guy?” Leon glanced around the vacant diner. “You said he’s here every day.” He briefly glanced at Parker, who continued to fail at reacquiring speech, before settling back on me. “Arch, you better not be wasting my time.”

“Patience, big fella. He is here every day. I never said it was like clockwork.” I gestured toward Parker. “We’ve been coming in every day, reconnaissance-like.”

Leon scowled. “Recon? From you?” He shook his head and sighed. “Let me guess: you wore that.” He gestured toward my greatcoat and tricorne with disdain.

“Is there a problem with my clothes?”

“Not at all, if we were going to a Renaissance fair!” Leon groaned. “If you were tailing him, he’d pick you out without even trying. Why the hell do you wear all of that crap?”

I sniffed and tugged at my coat irritably. “I am the Archduke of Ithaca. I have an image to uphold.”

“Then it’s best if you laid off the sweet stuff,” Parker blurted. “That coat is bulging a bit around the middle.” He glanced nervously at Leon, who said nothing.

“Shut it, you.”

“If you ladies are finished,” Leon interjected sharply. “Then we can focus on whether or not your cover was blown.”

“It wasn’t blown,” I assured him. “It never even looked in our direction. It came in and scarfed pancakes for hours on end. Apparently our quarry has a bit of a sweet tooth. It can’t resist the food here.”

Parker mumbled under his breath. I glared at him. “Care to share with the class?”

“I said ‘He’s not the only one.‘” Parker replied.

Leon smiled.

“My eating habits are not in question here!” I growled. I glared at Leon. “Would I still garner the full pay for my services if my partner mysteriously disappears?”

“Have to catch me to kill me, fatty.” Parker sneered, poking out his tongue.

The diner door swung open again, and a new figure emerged. It was another massive body, only this one was morbidly obese rather than covered in muscle. His multiple chins were masked by a coppery beard. A bad comb-over covered a splotchy bald-spot. The man waddled to a booth and squeezed into a seat. The waitress tottered in his direction.

“That’s it,” I said softly, and Leon openly stared. The fat man paid us no notice, too caught up in placing his order, which I knew from experience consisted of three stacks of jumbo pancakes, extra buttery.

That’s Cazael?” Leon whispered. His eyebrows were trying to leap from his forehead. “You think he’d go with a better look.”

“That’s pancakes,” contributed Parker sagely. He poked me in the shoulder. “See? Pancakes. That’s all they’ll do for you.”

“Oh, do shut up. I look nothing like that.”

“You’re well on your way.”

“Both of you be quiet,” Leon hissed. He seized my shoulder. “You’re sure that’s Cazael. Absolutely positive?”

I spread my hands. “It’s what I do. Gift and curse, remember?”

Leon nodded, but his gaze wasn’t on me. He chewed at his lip briefly, before standing. “Well, I guess that’s that. I’ll take it from here.” And he began walking toward Cazael.

I snatched toward him to stop him, but he walked with long strides, and he was nearly halfway there. I grimaced openly and sank into my seat, pulling my cap down over my eyes.

“What’s the matter, tons of fun?” Parker jeered.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, choosing that moment to ignore the insult. “It’s just that Leon plans on killing something right now, and he’s probably going the wrong way about it.”

Across the diner, I watched Leon approach the fat man. I heard Leon say, “I have a message for you,” as he reached in his jacket, and watched as he drew a gun with terrible fluid speed. Two loud, cracking reports filled the space, and the fat man’s head jolted backward, spraying red everywhere.

The waitress screamed. Leon winked at me.

And then things got so weird.

The End

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